Refugee

I sip the hot drink and feel the skin on my tongue tingle from the burn. It’s heavenly; so rich and strong, the consistency of syrup or melted chocolate. I clasp my hands around the mug and shiver as the warmth rushes up my arms. Raising the mug to my burnt lips, I take another sip.

I close my eyes, and allow myself to think about the others. How cruel this world is, that luck decides who lives and who dies. If one of a million things had happened differently, Randy would be sat in this refugee camp drinking too hot, too strong hot chocolate and I would be the one buried beneath our high school.

If I look back now, I can trace back the cause and effect.

My sister was two years older than me and amazing at everything. My parents adored her and I grew up in her shadow, doing exactly the same things that she had done two years previously; but I could never do anything to her standard.

When she moved up to high school, she joined the school gymnastics club. Soon she was being entered into county, and then regional, and then national competitions and winning everything she tried. She was amazing. When she came home with all her medals and trophies my parents would turn to me and tell me that “if I worked hard that could be me”.

When I moved up to high school, I didn’t join the gymnastics club. I joined the basketball club.

I was the only girl on an entirely male team. At first, I was terrible. I knew nothing about the rules and the boys teased me mercilessly, but every time I felt like giving up I thought what my parents would say. They would compare me to my sister and wonder why I had turned out so badly. So I put my head down and worked like hell. I improved slowly, but a time came when I was officially a member of the team, and we would go and play games against the other schools, and gradually we began to win them.

I wasn’t at school on that day because of a game. It was huge; if we won, we would be entered into the South West tournament, further than we’d ever got. We’d been training for months. I more was terrified than I’d ever been in my life, but somehow, when I stepped into the court, everything fell away. The match was infinitesimally close but we won, and were in the coach on the way home when our coach driver turned up the radio and we heard the news report.

I am alive because I didn’t want to be my older sister. Is that fair? I decided to rebel and my reward is that I get to survive, while my sister, who never did anything wrong, is dead.

Or maybe it’s not my fault at all. Maybe it’s not my fault but pure luck. Maybe an earthquake on the seabed a thousand miles away caused a small disturbance out at sea that became a giant wave that came and swept away our city. Maybe the world is just randomly evil and cares not for who it destroys.

Or maybe we did something wrong. Maybe our city was evil and didn’t deserve to exist, and some God somewhere decided to sweep it off the face of the earth, like a spring cleaner carelessly ripping through the delicate cobwebs of spiders.

Or maybe this was going to happen anyway. Maybe nothing we could have done would have changed the changed the pattern of events. Maybe, in the future, people will look back on this day and say that this was when everything changed, the pivot point on which everything rests. Maybe this was necessary. Maybe all this death and destruction has some ultimate purpose. Maybe there’s some lesson to be found from this mess.

If there is, I can’t see it from here.

 

 

Play-Fighting

The clash of metal on metal rings through the courtyard. Pigeons soar, startled, from the heavily laden apple trees. Maysie, our tortoiseshell cat, looks up sleepily from her perch on the garden wall, then turns her head away. If Ma was in earshot, she would probably start shrieking at me and my brother to quieten down. But I know that she is the other side of the house; far enough away that we can work in peace.

My brother, Adrian, distracts me from my thoughts. “Hey, Miriam, are you here to fight or aren’t you?” I look over at him. Neither of us are wearing any more armour that a breastplate. He prefers to fight with a shield: I don’t. His face is flushed from fighting, but he’s smiling. “Sorry!” I say, before raising my sword and preparing myself. My brother pushes his brown hair from his eyes, his expression one of utmost concentration.

As always, he attacks first. He sprints the three steps towards me and aims a forceful blow at my chest. I neatly step to the left and block his attack, then swiftly cut my own blade down towards his shoulder. He blocks, and we are thrown back into our rapid dance with swords. Even though he is two years older, he and I are very evenly matched at fighting. Apart from him, nobody knows I can fight. A girl with a sword is a shameful sight. So it is our secret.

I know his style, and my mind is flitting through possible attacks, blocks and counterattacks faster than I can deliver them. He is a blur, his expression fierce and serious. We are so close to one another, weaving in and out of the way, and yet we never touch. Only our blades clash together, sending ringing noises echoing off the walls of the courtyard.

After a while – ten minutes, maybe more – the familiar burn of exertion starts to wind it’s way around my sword arm. For a while, I ignore it. But finally I admit that I’m worn out. Almost like my confession was the key to a floodgate, my body seems to begin screaming at me, clamouring to tell my brain about all my various pains. But I’m not going to stop. Not now!

I know that Adrian is getting tired too, because his blocks are slower and are barely stopping my sword before it touches him. His face isn’t flushed any more; it’s bright, tomato red. I’m not in a much better state. I feel like I’m burning up inside and I am uncomfortably aware that the hair on my forehead is slick with sweat.

I can feel him weakening: his attacks are getting feebler and feebler. I grin, taking advantage and showering him with blows. Ignoring my exhaustion, I feint an attack towards his right thigh, then at the last second pull out and swing at his chest. He wasn’t expecting that and my blow catches him full-on in the chest. He staggers back from the blow, his bright red face so surprised that I burst out laughing.

I can’t help it; he looked so funny with his eyes wide, his mouth a round ‘O’ of shock. Laughter spills out of me like water from a tap and I lower my sword. Suddenly Adrian comes shooting into my vision, sword held high, and I only just manage to block him. Caught off guard by his sudden attack, he soon has me pinned against the courtyard wall with his blade at my neck.

We’re both panting. He’s gone – if this is possible – even more tomato-coloured. He backs off, lowering his sword, still gasping for air. I slide down the wall until I’m sitting, with my back against it. He falls down, a marionette with severed strings. My heart is pounding and my hand so cramped I can’t prise my fingers away from the sword handle. After a couple of minutes catching our breath back, he says,

“If you hadn’t begun laughing, you would’ve won that.”

I laugh again, the memory of his face flashing through my mind. “You just looked so funny,” I say with a smile. He returns my smile ruefully, running a hand through his chestnut hair. Now he’s won, our score is… let me see… 7 : 8. But in his favour. Drat! Now I’ve got to beat him tomorrow. We sit in companionable silence for a while before he stands up, offering me his hand so that I can too. I groan as I stand, rubbing my sore muscles. “You shouldn’t have let me sit down, I’ve gone all stiff!”

He grins. “Come on, let’s go and get this stuff off before Ma comes looking for us.” Walking out of the courtyard, I whistle to Maysie, who is still soaking up the sunshine on the wall. With her slinking at our heels we troop through the orchard towards the house.

With my sword bouncing at my hip, and the calming, childhood sounds of the wind in apple trees, the purring of Maysie and the cooing of pigeons, I feel perfectly at ease. My limbs still burn slightly, but it’s a good burn now, a healthy I’ve-just-done-exercise burn. I relax. Linking my arm through Adrian’s, we make our way through the heavily laden apple trees, laughing in the summer sunshine.

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